The Gang of Four: should Labour split once and for all?
Ever since Jeremy Corbyn emerged as the Labour leadership front runner, Fleet Street has treated us to a veritable gala parade of performative centrism. One opinion writer after another has been falling over themselves to show us what grown-ups they are for having memorised The Rules Of Politics, and to display appropriate scorn for Corbyn’s supporters and their inexplicable failure to appreciate the status quo. In fairness, the spectacle itself – the sheer number of people writing the same article – says something in support of their argument, proving that abject conformity is indeed a fast track to career success. What it doesn’t do is contribute to a productive conversation about Labour’s future, not least by stripping all context and meaning from the crucial question of how to beat the Conservatives.
Political analysis isn’t sports commentary. In sport, winning is an end in itself, and the tactics used to secure victory are nothing more than a technical matter. Arsenal and Chelsea don’t covet the league title for fundamentally different reasons, and there are no moral or social consequences to whether they choose to play 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 in pursuit of it. For a political party, on the other hand, the first questions it needs to answer are what it wants power for, and what it is prepared to do to get it. In the case of Labour, those questions now go way beyond the current leadership election, calling into doubt the very nature and future of the party itself.
When Labour abstains on the Welfare Reform Bill - wanting to show that it accepts the current ‘bash the poor’ narrative and only seeks to quibble at the margins - that tactical decision has real-world consequences. It helps turn Victorian moralising about the ‘undeserving poor’ from a contestable point of view into a common sense that all right-thinking people buy into. This in turn sets the scene for further punitive measures down the road, making Britain a darker, more threatening place to live for those unlucky enough to have to rely on some form of social security. It pushes the hallowed ‘centre ground’ further to the right, and shrinks the space available for any genuinely progressive, humane political project.
When three quarters of the Parliamentary Labour Party, including the entire frontbench, can’t bring themselves to vote against a bill whose measures would hit 330,000 children in low income families, dragging 40,000 of them below the poverty line, that raises the question of what those MPs want power for, and what they would be willing to do with it if they had it. Promises from frontbench leadership candidates that getting into government would allow them to “put their values into practice” become not a source of inspiration, but of dread. And when the only candidate to vote against the bill is the favourite of party members and supporters, that raises the question of what the party and many of its MPs still have in common.
All political parties are coalitions to some extent, and the broader coalitions can often be the most successful. But there are limits. Whatever their differences, the strands within the coalition need to have a broadly shared worldview so they can agree on a common project. No such project is now possible in a Labour party that has become ideologically stretched to breaking point. Writing in the Observer, Andrew Rawnsley likens Labour to an increasingly unhappy marriage between socialists and social democrats, but this is at least twenty years out of date. Like Princess Diana’s marriage, the party is dysfunctional because it has become overcrowded. It now contains three broad political strands, and while they just about held together during the boom years, the age of austerity has shown that their alliance is now well and truly at the end of its rope.
The first strand, on the party right, are the neoliberals: those who accept the free market consensus introduced by Thatcher and entrenched by Blair, but who would manage that status quo slightly differently from the Tories. The second strand are the social democrats: those who note the evidence that neoliberalism has made Britain one of the most unequal countries in the rich world, causing serious damage to the well-being of the population, and who would seek to emulate instead the more successful capitalist models of northern Europe. The third strand are the socialists, whose aims go somewhat further, seeking increased public ownership at home and an end to British militarism abroad.
The crucial distinction is that the party right’s aims are conservative with a small c, while the centre and left’s aims are transformative to varying extents. When Tony Blair said recently that he wouldn’t want Labour to win on a left-wing platform, it underlined the central fact of the debate around the leadership - a truth which by now can be seen from space. Labour's left and right are opponents, not allies. Their political aims are in total conflict. ‘Unity' would mean demanding that one side or the other abandon its principles and actively campaign for a programme it opposes. This is no basis for a functioning political party.
The alternatives to a party split are a sudden, improbable surrender by one or two of its three strands, or a permanent state of civil war. Better in that case to get it over with now. It makes little difference at this point who stays and who leaves, or whether the entire party is retired and two new ones are formed. The real question is which of the opposing flanks the social democrats in the centre choose to side with.
An alliance with the Blairite wing would not be promising. The party right made no effort to disguise their scorn even at Ed Miliband’s mild and partial attempt to move in a more social democratic direction. So the soft left would have to settle for being sullen passengers on the same neoliberal journey they’ve been on since the 1990s, now with no mass membership to do the campaigning, if Liz Kendall’s pathetic showing so far is anything to go by, and certainly little chance of winning back 40 lost seats in Scotland.
An alliance with the socialists would face serious challenges as well – let’s not kid ourselves. It is harder, much harder, to win elections while taking on the press and big business, and contradicting the dominant political narratives of the day. Even after rallying voters who are already left-inclined, and galvanising those who tend not to vote at all, a left party would still need to engage a great many sceptical people and persuade them of a different point of view. But ultimately, if no one was willing to stick their neck out and fight these battles, no social progress would ever be made.
The soft left should see this endeavour as something they can get on board with, for three reasons. First, setting aside the Westminster-Fleet Street hysterics, Corbyn’s actual programme is barely more radical than standard Keynesianism, and certainly has the potential to be persuasive. The world’s two most respected social democratic voices, Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz, have described his approach as sensible macroeconomics and a natural response to the failures of Blairite neoliberalism. Second, Corbyn’s strong emphasis on collegiality and movement-building holds out the prospect of a genuinely inclusive project, with the foundations to withstand what will undoubtedly be thrown its way. Third, above all, is the moral imperative. Failing to oppose brutal measures like the Welfare Reform Bill is simply not an option. Austerity forces us to decide where we stand.
For Labour members, the fundamental questions now that confront them are these. Is it your dream to tramp from doorstep to doorstep campaigning to advance the career of some PPE mediocrity who holds your politics and your principles in something approaching contempt? Are you willing to dedicate your free time and energies to a party whose leadership is content to throw thousands of working class children to the dogs if there’s a chance it might play well in Basildon? Do you see defending the impoverished and the denigrated, and fighting for a better, kinder society, as a moral obligation, or a risk to be avoided?
Because depending on your answers, there are possibilities opening up to you now, and to the left as a whole, that go far beyond the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the Labour Party.
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